The ugliest sport

August 18, 2013 § 30 Comments

I am an ugly rider. I bob up and down. I weave back and forth. I make unpleasant gasping sounds when going hard. My thin arms stick out at odd angles like a praying mantis. I have been called “Twigman,” “Mantis,” “The Human Loom,” and of course plain old “Wanker.”

But you know what? I’m an amateur, and not a particularly good one. My ugly riding style is just one more check-mark in the long list of qualities that define me as a weekend hacker.

What’s more than passing strange, though, is the ugliness of the professionals. Because you know, it didn’t always used to be that way.

The most beautiful sport

If you look at any of the classic cycling videos — A Sunday in Hell, or the 1973 World Championships in Spain — it’s impossible not to be struck with the smoothness of the riders. Of course each one is idiosyncratic; funny motions and unique pedaling styles make each rider as distinct as a thumbprint. But despite each rider’s individual style, the grace and smoothness of the riding is incredible, even over the rough and ragged paving stones to Roubaix.

Then, to see how far we’ve fallen, look at the Tour of 2013.

The winner is perhaps the worst example of ugly cycling to ever appear in the pro peloton. Froome’s ungainly, awkward, uncomfortable, and erratic pedaling make his riding ugly beyond belief, and the hilarious photo essay of “Chris Froome Looking at Stems” only proves the point: The head-droop that causes experienced racers to shout, “Keep your head up, dumbshit!” is emblematic of a man who just won the Tour de France. Yet he’s hardly alone. Jerky, forced, unnatural, uncomfortable riding styles abound. How did the beauty of 1973 become the unbearable ugliness of 2013?

Saddle time

The  biggest difference between then and now is that pro cyclists don’t race their bikes very much. In 1975, the year that Eddy Merckx lost the tour, he entered a staggering 195 races, everything from classics to grand tours to local criteriums. Nor was he the exception, because in those days pro riders made their money at the smaller events. Merckx has said that if he had been paid better, he would have raced less.

Chris Froome’s racing schedule in 2013 was comprised of the Tour of Oman (6 races), Tirreno-Adriatico (7 stages), Criterium Internationale (3 stages), Tour of Romandie (6 races), Criterium du Dauphine (8 races), and the Tour de France (21 races). His total race calendar for the year was a meager 51 races, and when you lop out the time trials and prologues it was even less.

From the perspective of developing good riding skills, the generation of racers who became professionals by racing their bikes rather than by doing specific lab, heart rate, or power-based workouts had countless more racing miles than modern Pro Tour racers. It’s my opinion that the huge number of races over so much different terrain — riders would often do track and cyclocross after the road season ended, in addition to muddy spring classics and summertime tours — made them smoother, more fluid, more skilled, and better riders.

Equipment and training miles

In addition to huge miles in training and racing, Ol’ Backintheday rode equipment that required skills. You had to reach the down tube to shift. You had fewer gears to choose from. Your bike was heavier. Your wheels were slower. Your feet weren’t very firmly bound to your pedals. Your shoe soles were soft.

Professionals had to be able to pedal and operate machinery that was more finicky than today’s push-button, wrist-flicking technology. The best example I can think of that shows how degenerate the pro peloton’s skills generally are is by comparing them with modern track racers, who still have the same bike handling limitations that they had fifty years ago.

The track is narrow and unforgiving. The speeds are high. The equipment tolerates little if any jerky, quirky, ugly riding, especially at the level of world class competition. The result? Elite track racers remain beautiful to watch, their efficient, measured, and controlled movements in complete harmony with the bike.

I’ll always ride ugly. But Chris Frooome and his cohorts could stand for a beauty makeover. It might make me forget about their volcano doping, if only for a little while.

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§ 30 Responses to The ugliest sport

  • Mike says:

    I thought you were writing as Chris Froome until the second paragraph. Well said rant altogether, tho.

  • Doug says:

    Froome uses Osymetric rings so you won’t see his pedal going around at a constant rate even though his bike is steady. .

    • Joe Camacho says:

      Technology should not be the excuse for bad form or lack of skill. Froome is a blight, he does not provide an aspirational example for anyone. One may actually opine that he is bad for the sport. REALLY BAD! His riding is just shameful!

    • channel_zero says:

      hahah. That ridiculous non-round idea pops up every, 30 years?

      The last time it was called “BioPace” and Shimano sold it hard. Had pros on them and everything. A funny thing happened when Shimano stopped promoting/selling them. The podiums were exactly the same.

      Also remember wankmiester, the quality of the roads has gone up a great deal at World Tour level. I miss the random “acts of God” bad road surface inject into elite racing.

      Finally, be on the lookout for a race called the Tro Bro Leon in 2014. Brittany’s version of the Strade Bianchi event. Not really a Paris-Roubaix torture test.

    • fsethd says:

      He is jerky and not straight and ugly, as are many others. Remember how Chicken kept crashing his TT rig? Shameful!

  • samgwall says:

    Of course the exception that proved the rule was Michel Pollentier.

  • brian crommie says:

    Froome’s alien like bike posture reminds of the 70’s spider monster movies when they ate their prey. He’s never been the same since he humped the volcano.

  • Joe Camacho says:

    “you could race bikes professionally” never sounded so unappealing.

  • Deb says:

    The “looking at stem” bit is priceless – thanks for the link!

  • Tom says:

    Might be “ugly” to look at it, but there’s no evidence that a “smooth” or “quiet” pedaling style yields more power output or higher gross efficiency.

    Just try staying on Thurlow’s wheel for any period of time, whether flat or uphill … he also has ‘ugly’ style and bobs around a lot. Whatever works, I guess …

  • winemaker says:

    Lemme see here….race radios, electric index shifting, better roads, lighter and way better equipment, the best drugs, better trainers, good diets…and 51 days a year to race…that’s about a day per week. I think Maertens won more races than that in a year, back in the day.
    It’s a VO2 max test; don’t have to have the races at all…just put ‘em in the lab.

  • PT says:

    Thankyou for the Froomey link. I cried laughing.

  • RC White says:

    You know Seth, it’s really quite simple: Do you remember that Michael Keaton movie “Multiplicity”, where every time he cloned himself the clones degraded to the point where the last one was “limited”, to be politically correct… Okay, I’ll say it: “Retarded”… ready for the firing squad…

    Now that Froome has won the Tour, the bar has been lowered.. I jest, and digress… Granted I think Froome is a gentleman and an icon the sport needs for reasons other than physical aesthetics, but there are precious few riders capable of staring at their power meters and not crashing themselves and/or others into parked cars and other obstacles in the center of the road, again, Froome outstanding.

    Contemporary riders seem to interface with their bikes as if they were computers, but the computer can’t give you the feedback you need to develop a smooth and powerful cadence. You can get that only from paying constant attention to your body and the myriad of messages it’s sending you. I’d argue that the computer interfere’s with that process by disconnecting the rider from the bike and attaching his consciousness to the computer.

    Now, when they develop telepathic groupos’, THAT will be entertaining; Ego’s shifting into big chainrings on 12% grades, etc., In the days of Mercx, if I’m correct, the small chainring was a 42t, and the low gear cog was a 21 or 23t at the least. You pedaled smooth or you went back to the farm. Put a 42/23t low gear on your bike and spend six months climbing Piuma. You’ll find smooth.

    • fsethd says:

      You’ve nailed it. Thanks.

      BTW, when I moved to LA I had a 12 x 21 on the rear, and climbed all the big Santa Monica canyons. Within six months my IT band was so trashed I couldn’t even pedal.

      • RC White says:

        Ouch. Your dues have been paid. You now have a credit surplus, a suite at Caesar’s, and unlimited buffet privileges.

        I suppose one could equate “unbearable ugliness” with “unbearable lightness”… or it’s common cousin: ignorance.

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